Is Britain guilty of systemic torture in Iraq?
In the Lebanese capital of Beirut, far from the theatre of war in Iraq and his office in Birmingham, one of Britain’s leading civil rights lawyers has gathered some of the most damning allegations ever levelled against this country’s armed forces – certainly since the worst days of Northern Ireland’s Troubles.
As Britain’s invasion of Iraq approaches its 10th anniversary in March, Phil Shiner – who founded the Public Interest Lawyers group – and members of his team have held face-to-face meetings with survivors of alleged abuse and torture by British soldiers and intelligence officers and with relatives of those unlawfully killed during and after the war that defined the premiership of Tony Blair.
The statements – 180 of them, with 871 to follow – go before a judicial review hearing at the high court in London next week in a claim seeking to demonstrate that Britain broke international laws of war by pursuing a policy of systematic torture.
The testimony is shocking, such as from “Khalid”, a detained Iraqi civilian: “[A British soldier] then grabbed my penis and dragged me around the floor while holding it. He also made me squat up and down whilst naked and inserted his finger into my anus. I would have preferred to have been killed than subjected to this.”
A prisoner called Halim claims he was told: “Fuck you and fuck Islam!” by a soldier who then “opened the belt of my trousers and said ‘now jiggy jiggy’. The soldier put his boot in my chest and pulled my trousers down … The soldier put his foot on my chest … lifted me in the air and turned me on to my front … He started rubbing his penis on my back while the other soldiers watched. I felt him ejaculate on my back … I was so upset but he spat in my face. He kicked me and started slapping me.”
A man called “Asif” claims that when soldiers came to arrest his elderly father, he said: “So you are the British people?” He testifies that the soldiers paralysed the old man with the blow of a rifle butt and stamped on Asif’s young son’s head when the boy tried to help his grandfather. “What I know of the British people is the opposite of what you are doing,” said Asif.
And so it goes on, witness after witness, in papers and videos before the court on 29 January, calling for a public inquiry into what is presented as an orgy of sadism, outlawed interrogation methods and unlawful killings by soldiers and intelligence officers against Iraqi civilians and prisoners of war between 2003 and 2008. Iraqi soldiers who surrendered – supposedly protected by the Geneva Conventions – allege that they were forced to sit for hours in harsh sun, kicked, beaten and photographed going to the toilet.
Civilians say they were subjected to hooding, beating, threats of rape and execution, forced nakedness and maintaining stress positions, violence against wives and children, ritual humiliation. And they claim that others, like Baha Mousa, were beaten to death. They say walls of noise were used to drive the prisoners mad and cover the sounds of abuse and pain.
The British government will argue in court that this apparent litany of abuse by troops it sent to “liberate” the Iraqis does not warrant a public inquiry, since it was not “systemic”.
But the high court will be asked to rule that this position is untenable given the weight and range of the allegations. Shiner and lawyers for the families of those killed and survivors of the abuse say the inquiry is a fundamental requirement of articles 2 and 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights, on the right to life and prohibition of torture.
According to Shiner and his supporters, the decision of the high court will signal whether, 10 years after the invasion, Britain is prepared to reckon with its own legacy in Iraq.
“This is the crucial moment of decision,” says Professor Andrew Williams, author of a book on the most infamous single case to date, the torture to death in custody of an innocent hotel receptionist, Baha Mousa. “This is our last chance to get to the truth and find out what went on. It’s the last chance to see who is responsible.”
The legal issue at stake is whether the other abuses were isolated incidents of which commanders were unaware, as the government insists, or systemic and authorised as policy. With these cases comes the contention that the violations were systemic and thereby illegal – with responsibility reaching senior command level – which would put the state in breach of international law and necessitate an independent public inquiry. The victims’ claim before the court says: “No Iraqi appeared to be exempt from ill-treatment from arrest onwards.”
The MoD says the Baha Mousa inquiry, which investigated the killing of Mr Mousa and torture of several other civilians, dealt with any general problems of detention and interrogation. That inquiry reported last year and condemned the use of hooding and stress positions, supposedly outlawed by the UK government in the 1970s.
The MoD also points to its own Iraq Historic Allegations Team, established in 2010, which it says is a sufficient response to the allegations. The team was made up of Royal Military Police officers appointed to internally investigate unlawful killing and torture. But the appeal court ruled in November 2011 that the RMP had been “substantially compromised”, its members having been involved in the system of detention itself.
Williams’s book, A Very British Killing: the Death of Baha Mousa, details the killing and flawed investigation and prosecutions which followed, and exposes what he calls “a culture of callous indifference that infected a whole battalion and permeated far up the command chain, both military and governmental. What happened to Baha Mousa, and how the army and the government responded to his death, is emblematic of a whole system in operation.”
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